Musical Fidelity V-DAC II D/A processor

There's so much uncertainty and confusion surrounding computer audio and high-resolution downloads. Which hi-rez formats will win out? How do you store the downloads you've bought? (Easy. Don't buy them.) How do you access them? Will digital rights management (DRM) cramp your style, or data-storage fees for cloud computing crumple your wallet?

I don't care. I have never paid to download or stream anything, and I probably never will. My priority is to get the most from the several thousand CDs I already own. As cheaply as possible, without "adopting" anything, early or late. Yet I love computer audio when it's fast, fun, and free.

That's why I love inexpensive digital-to-analog converters. Buy one, use it for a few years, and replace it when something better comes along. The Musical Fidelity V-DAC II has come along ($379).

The original V-DAC sold for $299, and I reviewed it in the May 2009 Stereophile (Vol.32 No.5). It was small—3.75" (95mm) wide by 1.7" (40mm) high by 6.7" (170mm) deep—and powered by a wall wart. It accepted RCA and TosLink optical S/PDIF inputs that upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz, and a USB input that was limited to 16/48: still good enough for Internet radio, I think.

The V-DAC II is the same size and uses the same DSD1792 chip and SRC4392 upsampler, both from Burr-Brown. Unlike the V-DAC, the II incorporates the same asynchronous USB-to-S/PDIF converter found in Musical Fidelity's V-Link ($169), which the V-DAC II renders redundant.

The machined aluminum of the II's front and rear panels replaces the V-DAC's drab black and garish lettering, which reminded me of the jumping beans I used to play with as a kid. A toggle switch selects between the S/PDIF and USB inputs.

I no longer have the original V-DAC—my son got it last Christmas. (Now he's going to want the V-DAC II.) Even so, I could tell that the new version's sound surpassed the original's, even though I didn't use its USB input—I want nothing to do with paid downloads.

I heard more resolution, especially space. (Sam loves space.) A sweeter, less fatiguing treble—just the thing to show off the Dynaudio Focus 160 speakers. Better . . . well, focus. I could more precisely pinpoint images. In other words, I heard more where there, as well as more there there. And this is compared not only to my feeble memory of the original V-DAC's sound, but also to the sound of my present M1DAC. The new V-DAC is quicker, smoother, more agile. Who should know better than Quicksilver Audio?

For the most part, I used the Conrad-Johnson ET3 line stage and Quicksilver Silver 88 mono tube amps. I also used the LFD Mk.IV LE integrated. I mostly listened through the Dynaudio Focus 160s.

I was going to give Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson a bell, as they say in Britain, but he beat me to it. (I used to give my late friend Lars a yingle.) "The V-DAC II reclocks and upsamples to 24-bit/192kHz, whether you use S/PDIF or USB," Antony told me. (It's so easy to interview Antony. Like a good politician or general, he interviews himself.) "There's a profound question hidden here, which people sidestep. How can you turn 16 bits into 24 bits because it never was 24 bits? [But when you upsample] you're actually moving all the noise, all the crap, way out of the audioband, so it no longer interferes with the musical signal.

"This is simplistic," Antony continued, "but you can think of it like Dolby noise reduction. They boosted the midrange signal. The noise underneath remained the same, but the signal was bigger relative to the noise.

"The other interesting thing the V-DAC II does is reclocking. Every input has the same jitter. You don't lose the actual packet of data. It's still there, but you might not be sure of the starting point, and that's what causes jitter. The data packet is thrown off track. Reclocking lets you get the data back."

Antony told me that the V-DAC II's total harmonic distortion (THD) is less than half that of the V-DAC. "The crosstalk is dramatically improved, to 105dB, vs 94 or 95dB with the original V-DAC. This is what gives the superior stereo separation."

That pinpoint focus, if you will. This is very much audible, especially with Dynaudio Focus 160 loudspeakers!

While admitting the sonic superiority of genuine 24/96, Antony was no more eager to kill off the CD than I am: "Really good 16-bit/44.1kHz upsampled like this is really fantastic, but most people haven't heard it."

I have. For $379, you can, too.

John Atkinson, August 2012 (Vol.35 No.8)

The budget-priced Musical Fidelity V-DAC II is powered by a small wall wart. It has two digital inputs, S/PDIF and USB, selected with a small toggle switch. The S/PDIF input is offered on both TosLink and coaxial jacks, but only one can be used at a time. There is one set of analog outputs, single-ended on RCA jacks. The original V-DAC was reviewed by Sam Tellig in November 2009 and cost $299. Originally priced at $349, the V-DAC II now costs $379 but incorporates the asynchronous USB data receiver of Musical Fidelity's V-Link ($169), which allows the V-DAC II to handle data with a 24-bit word length and sample rates of up to 96kHz rather than be limited by the original's 16 bits and 48kHz. It still uses Burr-Brown's DSD1792 D/A chip and SRC4392 upsampler chip, however. Although the V-DAC II is $100 less expensive than the Halide DAC HD, the cost of cables brings its price closer to that of the Halide.

As with the Halide, setting up the V-DAC II is no more complicated than plugging it into a USB port on the host computer. Neither converter sounded harsh, which is what you might expect from inexpensive DACs. I agree with Sam that the Musical Fidelity had a sweet, nonfatiguing sound, though the Halide was, if anything, even sweeter. The V-DAC II had somewhat more extended low frequencies than the Halide. I had recently ripped to Apple Lossless files the Gary Burton Quartet's groundbreaking 1969 album Lofty Fake Anagram (CD, One Way). The Halide kept a little better control of the lows of, for example, Steve Swallow's double-bass solo in "Good Citizen Swallow," while not having as much weight. However, the Musical Fidelity's extra low-frequency energy is not as well controlled as it might be. The admittedly overwarm double bass in "Killing the Blues," from Alison Kraus and Robert Plant's Raising Sand (ALAC file transcoded from FLAC download with Max, Rounder/HDtracks 11661), was a bit too fat with the Musical Fidelity compared with the Halide.

More significant, the Musical Fidelity sounded drier than the Halide DAC HD, there being a little less of the St. Francis Auditorium's ambience audible with the Mozart Flute Quartet from my Serenade recording (Apple Lossless file, ripped from CD, Stereophile STPH009-2): the violin, viola, and cello were presented as being more in the same plane as the flute. Overall, this aspect of the Halide's sound pushed it ahead of the V-DAC II for me, for whom "more space" is always more better. However, it's fair to point out that the Musical Fidelity is more versatile than the Halide, having both coaxial and TosLink S/PDIF inputs as well as USB.—John Atkinson

Company Info
Musical Fidelity Limited
US distributor: Tempo Distribution LLC
PO Box 541443
Waltham, MA 02454-1443
(617) 314-9227
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Comments
FSonicSmith's picture
That old quandary

JA-your review of this MF DAC could not come at a better time. DACs are a hot product category with more offerings in all price ranges than ever before. Being a headphone enthusiast, I can tell you that among young burgeoning audiophiles worldwide (particularly space-craved European and Asian enthusiasts who frequently use computers and headphones in bedroom or tiny apartment rigs), DACs are a constant topic of discussion on headphone oriented audio sites (I would name the most trafficed one but am not sure that is permitted in this forum).

I LOVE this review because here we have a no-nonsense product from a very well respected manufacturer that has "measurements beyond reproach" and yet the sound is respectable, but not state of the art. It is "Exhibit A" to that old but absolutely undeniable chestnut that "If the sound quaility and the measurements don't coincide, you must not be measuring the things that matter the most". From time to time Stereophile has published long essays on a particular topic of facination i.e. cartridge alignment theory. I look forward to the day when someone as well versed in independant engineering as you, dear JA, undertakes a similar essay and takes a very hard look at what sets apart the state of the art DACs from the merely respectable in terms of design and implementation. Perhaps some input from someone like Gordon Rankin, whom I gather is one of this world's leading software engineers and experts on digital audio would assist in the essay. Is the size and sophisticatioin of the power supply and it's isolation from the digital components a fundamental aspect? Are operating temperature control (the so-called oven) for the DAC and clocking circuitry critical? Is the recreation or simulation of "real" (as in naturally rounded" soundwaves rather than the notched one we see via scope a critical goal? Where are the current engineering short-comings that need to be overtaken before digital recording and playback can have an absolute break-through in SQ? Just my thoughts, likely to be worth 2 sense and not more.

Archimago's picture
Hi-Res... Should not be confusing...

Nice review.

I found the opening comments curious however.  Having bought hi-rez downloads from various sources, I think it's obvious which hi-res format *should* win:

FLAC format - open source, easy to decode, capable of multichannel, good compression (in my tests better than Apple's ALAC). Apple's refusal to include native support in iTunes after all these years is an example of why I am reluctant to buy Apple products.

No DRM. Since you'd likely want to convert to lower-res versions for iPod/phone/tablet without hassle.

I prefer PCM over DSD. After all these years, DSD has not gained much of a foothold - I think there is a reason despite claims for the press and manufacturers like Sony. The standard DSD64 just doesn't sound all that much better and most albums have to be mixed in PCM anyways in the studio.

I really hope the whole affair around hi-res gets standardized so more people can enjoy the benefits of higher quality digital.

 

wozwoz's picture
johnny-come-lately

i) The article seems a little johnny-come-lately to me. I mostly purchase hi-rez stereo on SACD, which, when done with a proper hi-res DSD recording (without PCM messing about in the editing), yields the most natural, warm analog sound I have heard ... rather like vinyl without the pops and scratches. There do exist D/A converters that can play DSD files, but the above reviewed item does not appear to be one of them.

 

ii) In any event, there are vastly more hi-rez files available on SACD (about 8000) than available as downloads, ... and most of the download files are ripped from SACD anyway, even if they started life as 24bit/96kHz files. 

 

iii) Finally, I am confused at the articles pointed assertions NOT to buy downloads. I personally do not ... I buy discs because I like the physical touch, I like the hi-rez stereo DSD format, and I think downloads are a waste of money because they have zero re-sale value. But, if this product is designed for downloads, and the article advocates that people NOT buy them ... then we are EITHER in the bootleg piracy world (where who knows what you are actually downloading anyway) OR the source is the hi-rez physical world (i.e. SACD) ... and if so, the SACD will yield better quality than an imperfect analog rip of same. 

Jon Iverson's picture
Do Buy Downloads

I strongly disagree with Sam's anti-download stance here and encourage readers with digital music servers to explore the dozens of high resolution download options now available.

It is a trivial matter at this point to convert file formats as things change.

Check out AudioStream for a list:

http://www.audiostream.com/content/hd-music-download-sites

Stephen Scharf's picture
I agree with Jon and JA

Jon, I agree completely and have been buying more and more true high-resolution content from various providers e.g. HDTracks and Linn. I find them to be markedly better than their Redbook equivalents  (try the 24/192 version from HDTracks of Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! for a revelatory experience). I find Sam's perspective on this rather curmudgeonly, personally, 

Also, I'm personally a bit tired of seeing repeated Musical Fidelity DAC reviews....and no review of game changers like the Schiit Bifrost. For the same price as a the V-DAC you can get a DAC with a built-in power supply and superior industrial design that you can use a with a real power cord. And for $100 more, you can get that DAC fully upgradeable with asynchronous USB up to 24/192 KHz performance. I owned a Bifrost for the better part of 4 months (before getting my Wadia 121), and IMHO, it blows everything in the $500-$1000 price class completely into the weeds. I've listened to the Musical Fidelity V-DACs and the M1(?) DACs, and agree with JA about being too dry for my taste as well. Once fully burned in, the Schiit Bifrost is musical, sweet and mellifluous, and anything but dry. It does require a good 250-300 hours of burn in, though (approx 3 mos. of use). I think Jason Stoddard and Mike Moffat at Schiit are genuine movers in this computer audio/DAC arena, though, and I think two years from now their products will be very highly regarded. Wish I was seeing their products reviewed in Stereophile...

Jon Iverson's picture
Review Coming

I've got a Bifrost review in the works right now.

Stephen Scharf's picture
Excellent!  Thanks, Jon,

Excellent! 

Thanks, Jon, I'll look forward to it.

 

SpinMark3313's picture
V-DAC II, no Computer Audio

The DAC on my Marantz SA-8004 is quite good, but a bit more "hi-fi" sounding than the V-DAC II.  The II helps tame the digital nasties on some older CD's in particular -- worthwhile music but often poor recording / mastering.

Progressive rock, large scale classical = Marantz onboard DAC.  Small combo jazz / chamber music = MF V-DAC II.  My preference anyway...

AA's Pangea power supply for the V-DAC II is well worth the extra shekels by the by...

attilahun's picture
192 or 96?

Did Sam say the V Dac II handles 192 and John say 96?

I would prefer 192 and feel 96 will be obsolete sooner as I'm a fan of hi-res audio. 

John Atkinson's picture
Re: 192 or 96?

Quote:
Did Sam say the V Dac II handles 192 and John say 96?

The VDAC II handles sample rates up 192kHz via S/PDIF (coaxial or Toslink) but only up to 96kHz via USB.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

attilahun's picture
Got it thanks John.

Thanks for the info John. 

There seems to be a consistent resolution drop in many USB inputs. 

I'm aggravated by the 48 limitation on the USB input on my bryston bda1. 

Hopefully these will slowly fade away. 

I've heard rumors that bryston is exploring a USB upgrade but no solid news.

earwaxxer's picture
upsampling DAC's are so 20th century!

I dont know - it seems to me with computer audio we have come to the point with digital music playback where we can do with it what we wish, and we dont have to settle for the set in stone hardware manipulations of the past. From my experience, SRC algorithms each have a different sound, with many methods to tweak phase, dither etc. That is the future and present of getting the most from redbook. Forget about letting the chip do the work.

jim777's picture
is there really a problem?

You have the choice of sending your 44.1k redbook to the dac and living with its upsampling (with the advantage that it might retain more bitlength than 24bits internally, or be optimized for the type of sigma-delta conversion that is done), or you can choose your SRC algo and send hi-res (already upsampled) data to the DAC. So I'm not sure that your concern is valid.

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